To the dismay of TV viewers around the world, this summer marks the beginning of the end for Breaking Bad. Now into its fifth and final season, the AMC drama has captured the imaginations of its rabid fans through a powerhouse cast, suspenseful storylines and an eerie, unsettling score that shapes the show's dark southwestern aura.
Dave Porter is the man behind those disconcerting sounds. As the series' composer, Porter creates the undertones that accompany Walter White's latest drug deal or the entrance of a particularly menacing character or turn of events. The Sarah Lawrence College-educated Porter, who began playing piano at age five, has a wide array of instruments at his disposal when creating the music for Breaking Bad; rather than a traditional string-laden score, he crafts something more metallic, off-kilter and altogether bucolic. This is a show that owes much to its setting, which lends itself to one instrument in particular featuring prominently in the show's opening theme: the dobro.
"It's a fascinating instrument. It's essentially a guitar made out of metal, and they're very loud by design," Porter tells Rolling Stone. "It has this quality that is very, very aggressive and could be played that way. The idea from Vince [Gilligan, the series creator] was always that the backbone of the story would be about Walter's deterioration or transformation from Mr. Chip to Scarface. What I wanted to do with the theme, actually, was to give a little taste of not necessarily where Walter was in the pilot but where the story is going and where Walter is going to be at the end of this whole adventure."
The dobro, Andean flutes, synths and other nontraditional score instruments factor prominently into Porter's aesthetic. "One of my most important jobs as a composer and what I can bring creatively to the story is a level of tension and discomfort," Porter says. "It's a show that's very off-kilter, very unexpected, and I really wanted the music to reflect that. [It] led me to using a lot of world instruments, a lot of percussion in particular from around the world, and also using technology and using a lot of synthesizers new and old."
Through four complete seasons on the air, one might think that composing for the intense TV show might have become easier over time. Porter says that isn't the case.
"I'd say it's actually gotten harder," he explains. "The complexity of the story and of the precarious position that all the characters are in has made it increasingly difficult to find the very specific nuance of where any character might be at any given moment. In that way, I think that the music, especially in those quieter moments, has even gotten harder to do."
With Breaking Bad's final season premiering on July 15th in an eight-episode run (with a second set of eight episodes broadcasting in 2013), Porter is hard at work creating the sounds that will emanate from viewers' screens. "Fans will find it to be Breaking Bad taken to yet another level," he reveals of the upcoming arc. "And certainly, it's not out of line to say that we will see Walter White reach both new highs and new lows. And the music, of course, will reflect that."
"As I have talked about," Porter continues, "the theme song is the theme duration of the dobro piece, for example, reflecting Walter towards the end of his journey. It's fair to say you might be hearing more of that as we reach the conclusion to our story."
So, more dobro? "Perhaps," he concedes.